THE PEAK OF MONT SAINTE-VICTOIRE near Aix attracted Cézanne all his life. He identified with it as the ancients with a holy mountain on which they set the dwelling or birthplace of a god. Only for Cézanne it was an inner god that he externalized in this mountain peak--his striving and exaltation and desire for repose. In the painting in the Metropolitan Museum, the mountain comes less fully to view; its majesty is diminished by the foreground trees and the great extension of the valley at the right. The broader London picture renders the characteristic grandeur of the site, but also gives greater play, as I have said before, to the artist-observer and his turbulent mood. The stable mountain is framed by Cézanne's tormented heart, and the peak itself, through more serene, is traversed by restless forms, like the swaying branches in the sky. A pervading passionateness stirs the repeated lines in both. Even the viaduct slopes, and the horizontal lines of the valley, like the colors, are more broken than in the picture in New York. The drawing and brushwork are more impulsive throughout. Yet the distant landscape resolves to some degree the strains of the foreground world. The sloping sides of the mountain unite in a single balanced form the dualities that remain divided, tense, and unstable in the observer's space--the rigid vertical tree and its extended, pliant limb, the dialogue of the great gesticulating fronds from adjoining trees that cannot meet, and the diverging movements in the valley at the lower edge of the frame.
It is marvelous how all seems to flicker in changing colors from point to point, while out of this vast restless motion emerges a solid world of endless expanse, rising and settling. The great depth is built up in broad layers intricately fitted and interlocked, without an apparent constructive scheme. Towards us these layers become more and more diagonal; the diverging lines in the foreground seem a vague reflection of the mountain's form. These diagonals are not perspective lines leading to the peak, but, as in the other view, conduct us far to the side where the mountain slope begins; they are prolonged in a limb hanging from the tree.
It is this contrast of movements, of the marginal and centered, of symmetry and unbalance, that gives the immense aspect of drama to the scene. Yet the painting is a deep harmony, built with a wonderful finesse. It is astounding how far Cézanne has controlled this complex whole. If you wish to see his subtlety at work, consider only the bending of the tree which becomes perpendicular to the mountain's slope when it reaches the horizon. Or observe the rectangular and peaked forms of the house beside the trunk of the same tree.
Thanks to the BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum mirrors, partners and contributors for their support.